Many years ago I learned that the best defense is a good offense… When I started the program, there were producers who would say they would not be on our program because our standards weren’t high enough… I would ask, “What standards specifically are you referring to?” They would not respond. The reason they would not respond, I came to find out is because they couldn’t meet our standards.
I am proud to say that HFAC have qualified the terms cage free, free range and pasture raised to bring clarity to an often misled and lied to consumer. This also allows truly credible farmers to confirm the truth of their labels. When we set the original standards in 2003 we had “cage free” and “free range” standards. Over the years, the term free range was used by anyone without any definition, standard or meaning. Therefore, we had to change the name of our “free range” standard to what it really was, which was a pasture standard. While we were doing that, we felt we needed to update and clarify what was truly necessary for the birds in a pasture setting. It took our scientific committee two years to revise the laying hen standards to make sure all the issues that needed to be addressed were addressed. We also felt a need to develop a “free range” standard for those laying hens that went outdoors seasonally, or had “outdoor access” since there was no actual space requirement or other requirements to protect the hens when they went outdoors.
For Pasture Raised, the birds are outdoors year-round. There is a 108 sq. ft/bird requirement, which is based on a rotational grazing system: up to 1/5th of the land may be used at one time to allow the rest of the land to rest, recover and prevent disease. That may well mean that the hens have only 20 sq/ ft./bird for a temporary period of time. However, the birds are moved through each section of the pasture in a timeframe appropriate for each farm’s climate and season, to ensure birds are always on fresh vegetation. This helps prevent disease and parasites and the recovery time is critical to allow the pastures to regenerate so these birds can truly be considered “pasture-raised.” This standard is based on the research by the Soil Association which was founded in 1946 and is a non-profit organization. This is a holistic approach that ensures the welfare of the birds as well as stewardship of the land.
The “Free Range” standard was based on birds who go indoors for part of the year, which will give the land that those birds were on time to rest, recover and prevent disease. The minimum space allowance for these laying hens is 2 sq. ft /bird
While there are companies that claim higher square feet per bird for example, 16 sq. ft/bird or 20 sq. ft./bird and claim their hens are out every day on the same land year in and year out, if the birds are never moved to another area they are “denuding” the ground. This means there will be no vegetation or “pasture” for the birds to forage in. Our “free range” standards require that if there is not adequate vegetation, alternative ground cover, such as straw, mulch, sand, etc. may be used to provide foraging material – so if laying hens are out on the same piece of property with straw, mulch or sand, no one would consider this pasture. So when one claims their birds are “on pasture” that would be misleading in this situation.
If a company with higher sq. ft/bird, such as 14 sq. ft. or 20 sq. ft. bird and they are outdoors every day, they could rotationally graze the hens to allow parts of their pasture or range time to recover. At 14 sq. ft./bird, divided into 1/5th that comes to 2.8 sq. ft./bird. At 20 sq. ft/bird that would come to 4 sq. ft/bird
No one with a Certified Humane® logo on their egg carton can use the term “free range” or “pasture raised” unless they meet all of those standards.
Because the public has a vision of hens roaming on green rolling hills, there are unscrupulous companies that like to put those images on their cartons and put out press releases and statements inferring a vision that we all would like to believe.
There are companies that have “pasteurized” eggs… just like pasteurized milk, which has nothing to do with how the hens are raised, or the cows are raised, “pasteurized” has to do with how the eggs or milk is processed.
Some companies set their own standards and verify their own compliance.
There are companies that claim, “Pasture raised and third party verified.” What does that mean? What are the pasture standards and who is the third party doing the verification?
If you truly want to buy a “pasture raised” egg, look for the Certified Humane® label on the carton or the Animal Welfare Approved® label on the carton. If you don’t see those labels,
I would go to google and do a search and check out who they are and what they really mean and say.
As for “free range,” we are the only certification organization that has an actual standard for free range. This is my suggestion: If you see an egg carton that has the words “free range” and does not have the Certified Humane® logo on the carton, I would do a Google (or Yahoo or other internet) search… not the brand website, go to Google… because you would be surprised at what you will learn about those companies. If you go to the company’s website, chances are you will see photos of bucolic farms that haven’t seen chickens on them for more than a few hours. You know you are being misled when the pictures don’t show the inside of the house, the nest boxes, perches, and where the chickens sleep on a daily basis.